Writer and Director: Theodora van der Beek
Running from 17 January to 22 February, the Living Records Festival is a celebration of ‘grassroots digital art’ cultivated into six volumes each containing seven or eight separate shows created by artists around the world. Theodora van de Beek’s Ram of God is one of the most unusual, exploring the semi-religious cult using 1970s horror movie styles to tell the story of the sheep and milk-loving Ram of God and his followers.
Part commercial, part music video, part documentary and part sermon, van der Beek’s 40-minute film is an extended trip that brilliantly creates the world of the sect while skewering the very masculine cult of leadership that exploits its female followers with promises of salvation when the inevitable apocalypse arrives – in this case in 2028. Revelling in the bizarre and sinister, Ram of God skilfully immerses the viewer in the philosophy and daily experience of the countryside retreat.
The film begins with a hippie-positive feeling, using overlaid video to chart the birth and emergence of the Ram born from an egg while outlining his belief in the power of milk and a love of nature. The focus is on the commune and feeling of freedom in nature with shots of the sunny summer skies, trees and members of the sect (all played by van der Beek in a series of terrible wigs) dancing on the lawn as the Ram roams the maze and gardens of a country house where he delivers his sermons between the crenelations cut into a hedge.
Soon, it adopts a music video approach with electric guitar music suiting the 70s stylings of the film as women of the cult pray and undertake the simplicity and modesty of the daily routine. As director, van der Beek overlays ghostly images of the different women to imply moments when they come together, moving between something that feels like a breezy advert for the Ram’s teachings to a more straightforward documentary that becomes blacker in tone.
There is an emphasis on death and decay, interspersing shots of dead creatures, rotten fruit and flowers being consumed by insects, while the high-flown language and inspirational music contrasts with a visual darkness as anatomical visions of hearts and brains seep into the mix. Things take a more serious turn when a particularly vulnerable follower has nightmares after disbarring the Ram from her room in which the audience feels her inner turmoil and in sudden silence the sexual undertones of the cult become more explicit.
This marks a change in the tone and the horror movie elements feed more strongly into the concept with mannequins doubling as bodies, head shaving and the anticipatory buzz of flies revealing the true nastiness within. So, when the rains come, the Ram’s teachings focus increasingly on Old Testament doom, enforcing concepts of damnation with parables about ungrateful sheep that build to a concluding chapter, set in 2028.
Developed with Soho Theatre, funded by the Arts Council England and with music supplied by Adam Janota Bzowski, Esther Abrami, and Psychadelik Pedestrian, there is something joyously unhinged and disturbing about Ram of God that creates such a complete experience that you cannot help but admire it. Its messages about toxic masculinity may be overlaid by the film’s kaleidoscopic style but it is worth temporarily joining the cult of Ram to enjoy van der Beek’s surreal but engrossing vision.
Runs here until 19 February 2021
The Living Record Festival runs here from 17 January to 22 February 2021